the Unspoken Essence of Non-Violent Protest and the Black Lives Matter Movement
I watched Congressman John Lewis’ funeral from beginning to end and bathed in the hope, promise and call to action uttered by speaker after speaker as a testament to the life and work of this great congressman and specimen of a life well-lived. There were so many great highlights from this ceremony, including the culminating message of President Barrack Obama, a self-professed mentee of Lewis, the first African American president of the United States; eloquent speaker, unifier and inspiration for all America and beyond - a nostalgic momentum that harkened back to better days, better leadership and better hope for our world!
As a student of both Eastern and Western mystical thinking what interested me also were the words of Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and her mention of John Lewis’ commitment to satyagraha – non-violence and truthfulness. I so appreciated this comment from Speaker Pelosi because it called into being this same approach to life (not only by Lewis) but also by Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) before him and Mahatma Gandhi first and foremost, the initial architect of satyagraha.
The non-violent protests of Black Lives Matter throughout America and the world currently have spurred numerous commentaries, particularly from the Christian community. Many have articulated what they thought a non-violent protest, as practiced by MLK, should look like. As a black Christian and Catholic who practices yoga, I have yet to find one current commentary that has not made me shudder to some extent, even those from my Catholic church community. Too often they have criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, calling attention to the protests as race riots. They have minimized the movement, emphasized a negative fringe element and thereby attempted, with all their might, to render this noble movement as ineffective, unjust.
While some inevitable violence did occur and ought to be called out, too quick there has been a willingness to speak out against and denounce the peaceful protests, to spend much time and energy focusing on the bad apples and even going so far as aligning them with the BLM movement. In the case of Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland in National Catholic Reporter (July 28, 2020) – he is said to have likened the protests to “great work of the Evil One”! Then there were the EWTN commentators like Gloria Purvis who on the one hand showed strong support for the anti-racism thrust of BLM but splits hairs to wag a finger at what she believed to be the “rioting” component of the movement. Then again, there have been countless others – articles, videos, homilies – all talking about non-violent protests, MLK and sometimes Gandhi and how Christian love is the elixir to save the day while never really condemning the sin of racism (except in a passing breath as an air of appeasement) to tick the box!
Too little has been said by these “righteous” leaders about the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement and how and why we got here in the first place, the significance in this is for our world, our Christian community, and why it is so dang necessary right here, right now!
It seemed to have never occurred to them that love is about relationship and the first act of love is to see the other and acknowledge the pain and hurt of those who are suffering, not just bemoan statues and buildings. For those who speak of Christian love their actions stink of inauthenticity! For too many it seems to have never crossed their mind as to how and why this movement ought to be viewed as sacred. Just like with Moses and the burning bush, these so called leaders have lost their sense of wonder, they know not that all the signs are pointing to them to “take their shoes off”; yet instead they turn a blind eye, curl their tongues and chant…” law and order.”
The germ of this movement - this Black Lives Matter movement -started in 2012 with the unfortunate, unforgettable and unnecessary death of 16 year- old black youth Trayvon Martin. Then white folks were not “woke” yet, and for most this appeared (at the time) to be just another unfortunate shooting of a black “man”. I remember writing a blog piece in July 2013 entitled Weak Ties and the Trayvon Martin Movement in which I made reference to the social network theory of American sociologist Mark Granovetter ‘who argued that it is weak ties, not strong ties, that build bridges and spur social movements’. Granovetter’s theory (1973) is revisited in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point (2000). Today, we all know a clear example of this, the apparent unprecedented and natural evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement. The whole world today knows its name!!
Despite all that has happened over the past few months, we still have many, primarily from the Christian community (my people, Catholics included) who are not paying attention to the holy spirit at work through the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a perpetual short-sightedness to see all in a “Jesus” context, while playing down - if not ignoring altogether - the universality of The Christ as is mentioned in Richard Rohr’s “The Universal Christ” at work here. A good example for how our leaders should act is reiterated in the book Gandhi and Non-Violence (introduction by Thomas Merton). Here Merton says:
“Gandhi was unusual…Instead of being fooled by the Western costume, and instead of being persuaded that he no longer really existed as an Asian, he recognized that the West had something good about it that was good not because it was Western but because it was also Eastern: that is to say, it was universal.”
The point Merton was making here is that Gandhi had the greatest respect for this Universal aspect of Christianity, and as a result, through Christian thought he “re-discovered his own tradition, his Hindu dharma.”
Father Tom Ryan, Paulist priest, yoga teacher in the Christian context and Vatican coordinator of ecumenical and interfaith relations, highlights throughout his book The Art of Fasting how we can learn from the great practices of other religious doctrines, for instance, he says, ‘Muslims can teach Christians how to pray’. In other words, learning from other faith practices can help us become better Christians.
Merton also noted in his introduction that, “Gandhi had the deepest respect for Christianity, for Christ and the Gospel. In following his way of satyagraha – he believed he was following the law of Christ…”
In this same manner MLK was influenced by Gandhi’s way of satyagraha and reconfigured these universal teachings to enhance his own Christian faith practice.
Hence to speak about non-violent protests is to also, respectfully, speak about Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha to which Speaker Pelosi so rightly gave credit; and, not to ignore it or bypass this proper understanding of Truth Force. Sadly, today our Christian faith leaders in their ignorance are attempting to taint the Black Lives Movement, as a mishmash, convoluted and almost sinister movement which only law and order can correct. Seven bullets in the back of another young black man (Jacob Blake) of Kenosha Wisconsin, does not sound like proper law and order to me. As Fr. Rohr might say, it is time for reorder in order for us to return to balance. The peaceful non-violent persistence of the Black Lives Matter movement carried out by black folks, brown folks and white folks is catalyst to help us reorder!
In the book Gandhi and Non-Violence, M.K. Gandhi describes satyagraha in these important points:
In satyagraha the cause has to be just and clear as well as the means..
Satyagraha is never vindictive. It believes not in destruction but in conversion. Its failures are due to the weaknesses of the satyagrahi not to any defect in the law itself….
The BLM cause is clear, the world is tired of the insinuation, belief and practice that some lives matter more than others and that still today, for too many of us, it is still okay to view a black person as three/fifths of a man (or woman)! This became clear in the George Floyd video; the protests were a natural outcome to this. We saw (at least on TV) peaceful protesters time and time again, who were met with teargas, pepper stray, rubber bullets and clubs by armed government forces, yet there were leaders urging the protests to end, rather than the armed resistance to stop! Those who have either not understood the movement or who chose to ignore the truth about what all of this means, continue to confuse the side show with the main attraction with the view of dumbing down “truth force!” or satyagraha, which in its essence cannot be dumbed down or stopped…history reminds us of this.
So let us learn from satyagraha, these great truths born out of Patajali’s yoga sutras – those of Satya (Truth) and ahimsa (Non-violence). In all truthfulness (thought, word and deed) we must do better than this! The light of truth is not convoluted, it is clear, it is just, it is freeing for all.